Team VA's Wonderings

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Back in Church

One way and another, it had been a fairly hard few days and I was pretty tired, as well as run down by my cold. So I don't think I was in the best shape for the 4 hour train journey to Christchurch-I had to work very hard and spend a lot of time on the open air observation carriage to stop myself falling asleep. Having just spent time in the mountains, some of the edge was taken off the spectacle, but I'm still glad I did it.

It had been a long day's travel when I got into my hostel at 7 p.m. Saturday night or not, I did my washing, had some dinner and chilled with the Hoff. HYPERLINK. I'm finally reading his book. Suffice it to say he's more self-important than I expected and goes to a cockfight. He has a dog called Sir Henry von Hasslehoff and writes 'There comes a time in your life when you've got to stop saving the world and save yourself'-he seems serious. There's much more.

Next day I had to make a few reservations first thing. I'm getting concerned that I'll run short of time in NZ, so am on a mission to get to Wellington and the North Island-without missing too much. After that I headed for the art gallery, which is housed in a very funky modern building. There were a range of interesting exhibits in mixed media from different periods and countries. I was most struck by the film on Erebus: NZ's worst air crash saw well over 200 people die when a sightseeing flight hit Mount Erebus in Antarctica. It ended such flights. Especially spooky was the footage filmed by a passenger, which was damaged, but recovered from the wreck. The dramatic irony was horrible as people were having a drink, wandering round the cabin and looking out the window, naturally oblivious to how their leisure trip will end.

The mood was lightened by a Maori group who gave a performance of traditional dance and song: I particularly enjoyed the chunky white guy, who was very into it.

I then headed to the international Antarctic centre. On the outside were some lines from an address that Clinton made at the centre: the sentiments of cooperation, environmental protection and that profit is not a moral compass made the disaster of Bush even sharper. Gore's decision not to have Clinton campaigning at the end cost the world dearer than it did him.

I really enjoyed the centre, which was based around informative displays, stuffed animals, videos and the like. I watched something on 'the longest night' about the 'over winterers', who spent the dark months in Antarctica. The fashions and glasses were clearly pre-internet, so the isolation for the Kiwi station was only relieved by the weekly phone calls, the mid-winter mail drop and trips to the Americans base at McMurdo, where there's a bowling alley and a Toga party ended in a fight. I quite fancy it, though I don't think I would enjoy it.

The centre's most ambitious piece was the Antarctic storm, opened by Sir Edmund Hillary, who also visited the Pole. You put a coat on, pass through a couple of doors into a mocked up Antarctic landscape, complete with ice and snow. It starts at minus 5, then the temperature drops, it gets dark and a bitter wind starts to howl. The wind reached about 40 kmph; winds of over 300 have been recorded at Antarctica. Most folk turned their back on the wind and huddled against the cold

I tried to face it, which made breathing difficult. I'm sure you're in there nowhere near as long as it seems, but I did wonder how long (minutes, not hours) I could last. The storms can go on for days.

They also had a refuge for injured penguins, who wouldn't survive in the wild. It was a chance to see them in the water and they were even more endearing usual-Elvis was blind and had to be fed by hand, another had a damaged flipper so he swam in circles.

Like many others, I travelled to Kaikoura for the wildlife-I'm on a whale watching boat later. I had to catch the 7 o'clock bus to do it, but it should be worth it. I didn't realise how beautiful Kaikoura is, I'd only expected a prime spot for marine creatures.

We're off to see Sperm Whales, probably the only whale that is always referred to by both parts of its name; for some reason the whale part is optional for Minke and Humpback, but not the Sperm Whale. We may also come across dolphins, sea, albatross and a number of others.

It's unusual to get sperm whales so near land, they hunt in the deep and have a taste for giant squid. I think they have been recorded at over 3,000m below the surface-now that's what I call deep. The reason they're at Kaikoura is the massive underwater canyon: just a few kms off the coast, the water rapidly changes from less than a hundred to 800m deep.

This is a pretty sophisticated setup-the boat's flash and they have sonar gear to listen for whales and help find them.

I know. Nelson has very odd PCs, so I can't get at the pic to turn it. Looks pretty cool from this angle I reckon.

They're noisy blighters, only the Blue Whale makes more racket, and at 160 decibels a sperm whale is louder than a 747. Rather than singing or pulling, the noise is mainly used for hunting: their eyesight is poor, so they use sounds to find and identify prey. So they don't have to swim so fast, they also use it to stun their prey-how cool is that. They can swallow a 2m shark whole, which helps make them the 4th largest creature on the planet-obviously after Blue whales, John Prescott and something else.

I felt my luck with seeing animals had to run out one day and after half an hour this looked like being it. Still, it was a beautiful day to be out on the water and we got an 80% refund for a no show. Then we saw this.

We saw 3 in all. I got a good video of one diving, which I don't know how to post. Fear not, I've got the classic

You see about 2 thirds of the whale bobbing in the water and they're not great breachers like the southern rights I saw in Hermanus, but it was still a majestic and awesome sight. The most beautiful thing, it was impossible to get photo, was the occasional rainbow effect in the spray of water and snot that is propelled out of the blowhole.

Even though a plane and chopper buzzed above us, I didn't have the moral worry of intruding on the animal-I figured if we were pissing the whale off, he'd just sink the boat. I say he, as they're all males here at the Kaikoura Blue Oyster bar-females are smaller and less blubbery, so it's too cold for them here.

On the way back, as if they knew we'd seen the good stuff, we got somersaulting dolphins putting on a full range of tricks. Great for us; not so good for the fish, as this was probably part of some group hunting.

In the evening we watched The Return of the King, my first LOTR since arriving-2 to go. I didn't recognise any of the locations. I get the bus to Nelson tomorrow, from where I shall be picked up for 2 days walking and kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park. Everyone I've met who's been there says it's wonderful.

I had few hours in Nelson after the bus arrived for a look round. Oddly, Nelson was named after Horatio, not Bob. Still, it's in a lovely setting by the sea, with hills rising up all around and was very pleasant to walk round. However, it is perhaps a little short on specific sites of interest. I picked out the Centre of New Zealand (henceforth CONZ), the cathedral and the supermarket. CONZ was described as the central point of New Zealand-I have no idea how they work these things out, but was confident it would be explained at the obelisk that marked the point. Also since I'd been to the Southernmost point of the South Island and plan to go to the top of the North, it seemed to complete the set rather nicely.

On my way to CONZ, I crossed the botanical sportsground, where Nelson College played the town in the first Rugby match in NZ. This reminded of being in Nelson before and playing the college, though not on this field. The memory was made weirder still by reproduction of the oldest picture of a game of Rugby on the Close at Rugby school-a reproduction used to hang somewhere in my house before I moved out. Speaking of my house, the bastard tenant's moving out, which could land me right in the shit.

Now I have seen many marvellous things on my travels and had a lot of new experiences, trying things I would normally shy away from. However, all this hasn't totally taken off my cynical edge and as I hauled my bones up an unnecessary steep hill, I thought it was a bit bloody convenient that CONZ was up a large hill, which I could tell would give quite a view over Nelson. And so it was that I did get a good view of the city through my sweat smeared eyes. I did not get an explanation of how they worked out CONZ was indeed CONZ. When I got back to the sportsground, I read some of the informational boards that councils put up: 'It is suggested that the actual Geocentre is.....about 55km SW of here. Botanical Hill's claim probably arose from.....' I can tell you the Lonely Planet didn't read that gem-all a bit of a con. Still, it was a nice view and having spent much of the day on buses the exercise was good.

The cathedral was in a terrific location atop a hill, but itself was underwhelming; the supermarket had some tasty looking veggie sausages-we have a winner.


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